This is the second in a three part series on a proposal by Protect Rhode Island Brook Trout.
To help restore the Upper Wood River’s overall health and population of native fishes, Protect Rhode Island Brook Trout has proposed an experimental 5 year plan which includes suspending the State’s stocking of hatchery-raised, non-native fish and establishing the watershed as catch and release with only artificial lures bearing single, barbless hooks. The Department of Environmental Management is aware of the proposal but feels, for now, there is insufficient data or cause to identify a population or habitat crisis or need to alter current regulations. A majority of those who attended state fishing regulation hearings have opposed the plan while Trout Unlimited has publicly stated its opposition to stocking non-native fish over wild populations. In the background is a plethora of scientific data regarding the potentially deleterious effects of stocking invasive species, a fear of institutional inertia slowing state government and how our love for fishing can obscure what PRIBT says are clear signs of population and riverine habitat failure.
Scientifically known as Salvelinus fontinalis, brook trout are part of the char family whose name translates into “living in springs”. Brookies, found mainly in cool headwaters, streams or some deeper lakes, are prized for their magnificent dark skin backing a palette of colors, are widely considered sentinels of environmental changes because of their specific optimal conditions and can be found in more than 130 waterbodies throughout the state.
Stocking over wild populations is of primary concern to the PRIBT. DEM stocks brookies as well as brown trout (Salmo trutta), an invasive species first introduced from Germany to Pere Marquete River in Michigan in 1883 by the U.S. Fish Commission and rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss), which are native to North America and stocked throughout the country. According to a July 2015 paper by the International Journal of Molecular Science, the “introduction of non-native genes in wild populations is widely recognized as a major threat for both genetic variability and biodiversity, and fish are not exceptions.” A 2013 peer-reviewed paper in the North American Journal of Fisheries Management “found that repeated stocking of brown trout…over native brook trout populations had detrimental effects on the wild brook trout.” This study also concluded that “intensive annual stocking brown trout could eliminate resident brook trout in less than a decade.”
Local Trout Unlimited chapter 225 has assisted the State with float stocking non-native brown and rainbow trout in the Upper Wood,despite their parent organization’s opposition. TU states,“With regard to stocking over native trout populations, the Salmonid Policy recommends that TU oppose stocking in water containing healthy self-sustaining populations of salmonids, more specifically the Policy advises TU to protect native populations by working to eliminate non-native stocking where it could adversely affect native salmonid populations.” This message comes from a 150,000 member-strong non profit who, as far back as 1962, successfully pressured the State of Michigan to end its “put and take” trout stocking, championing the invaluable merits of a wild fishery.
Chapter 225 took a vote then acted on two thoughts. The first was that the advisory was just that and therefore subject to some interpretation, despite a clear message of “ensuring that TU Chapters and Councils are not participating in or supporting such stocking activities in furtherance of TU’s mission to protect and restore wild and native trout”. The second was that there is no real scientific proof of “native” brookies in the river. They commissioned a Habitat Assessment Group for three years to, “make a clear decision on the applicability of the policy” but really it served to collect important environmental data on the river while avoiding the real issue: should a chapter of Trout Unlimited ignore a national policy or directive or advisory whose main mission is to “To conserve, protect and restore North America’s coldwater fisheries and their watersheds” in order to continue stocking trophy non-native fish in their backyard river? Douglas Thompson, in his book, Quest for the Golden Trout, wrote with dismay of hatchery fish surviving on timer-driven pellets which retards their natural foraging instincts. He noted that, “Research shows that newly released fish adopt high-risk and energetically costly approaches to feeding” which translates into big fish racing to eat whatever floats by, so they can “consume more food than wary fish that demonstrate perhaps a bit more cynicism and mistrust”, traits prized by true trout fishermen. Stocking hatchery fish, such great consumers of available foods, has an obvious and direct effect on the survival of the wily wild brook trout.
Chapter President Ron Marafioti feels,“the location is wrong, the approach is wrong” which, in fairness, is a reflection of what has become of the watershed: it’s a park full of 2 year old trout ready to jump but what’s missing from that argument is precisely what makes PRIBT’s heart beat: the challenge, art and peace, the satisfaction of outsmarting one of Nature’s finest creations, exactly, as Chris Wood told me, “where God placed these fish”. Not a fattened programmed brown on the verge of starvation, but a sweet dark brookie, speckled with sunlight, maybe as small as your palm is wide, in the wild. Paul Pezza, who landed his first trout 59 years ago, wrote, “I am of the belief that the Wood River can produce a sustainable population of brook trout if we leave the place alone”.
Marafioti also said, “We don’t know if we have native trout on that stretch of the river”. When considering the PRIBT proposal, the “native” versus “wild” argument is rubbish. TU’s Chris Wood told me that with regard to this management concept, “TU sees no difference between native and wild. The issue ultimately is not wild or native, it’s population protection.” Paul Pezza said, “Our position is that all stream-born brook trout in RI are of our native species, are wild, and are deserving of our efforts to conserve what is left of them and restore when possible.” Bingo.
Next week we will explore more on DEM’s position, the difficulties of change and my goal to bring this proposal to the table.
Hi Todd. Thanks for this article. Chris Wood provided the link on Facebook. My wife Barbra and I have lifetime memberships to TU and really appreciate Chris’s leadership on this issue. It’s always disappointing to see a local chapter setting aside science and TU’s philosophy and advocating hatchery trout over wild or native fish. Kind Regards, Jack Donachy
thank you for taking the time to read it. obviously there are three in the series so if you have the time, together they hopefully provide a complete look at the proposal and the concept of change. I’m not sure what to say about the local tu chapter. in fairness, stocking has been accepted for many many years but i say that with the caveat that as a group, they should have been ahead of the science curve. It’s unfortunate they were not the first to call for discussing a change, even a temporary one like this. on the positive side, i have learned quite a lot about the state of our trout, the amazing brookie and also what we are willing to overlook to fulfill our own wants.
For the record, meeting with chris was a wonderful moment of happenstance that really helped me gain a new sense of perspective and understanding of just how important these small fishes really are. thanks again for taking the time for read.
Hi Todd, Yes, I went back and read “Four Wise Men Protecting R.I.’s Brook Trout.” Familiar themes – as you (and Chris Wood) point out, the science on these matters is not new. Are (at least some of) the Wood River char sea going? Or is the lower river too warm for that? What I’m getting at is this: are the Wood River wild/native brook char a discrete population? The concern, whether we’re talking about Eel River steelhead, Kern River golden trout or Appalachian brookies is that indiscriminate stocking is wiping out genetic diversity before we fully understand it.
For the past 30 years, I’ve been a full-time teacher. I’m looking at my last few months in this profession, after which I’ll transition into a career based on writing, photography, travel and angling. You (and your readers) might be interested in these too articles related to cold water fisheries management that I wrote: http://cutterlight.com/2013/09/29/wild-trout-and-salmon-make-a-landscape-more-beautiful-10-reasons-we-use-our-alaska-permanent-fund-dividend-to-support-trout-unlimited/
I’m glad I found your blog and look forward to following further writing on these issues.
thanks for making the time to take in this story from the beginning. the wood river and more specifically, the upper wood, is all fresh water. the habitats with which they are concerned are fairly far up the river system, up in the head waters, first order streams and swamps. in summer months, most of the accessible waters are to warm to support brookies. A nearby river which does connect with the sea, the pawcatuck, has better chances of sea runs and has benefited from some state stocking. Genetic data collected on the river’s brookie populations seems to vary between researchers and is quite limited. The science here is pretty well established regarding stocking over natives, now the struggle is to raise state awareness of how they distribute our funds, especially when it comes to stocking non-native fishes. by the way, your recipe for the fish brine was spot on. as luck would have it, i had just smoked a mess of bluefish a few days before with a similar recipe. the next batch will be with yours, cheers to you. i have very much enjoyed reading your posts, well done.